Pearl Harbor survivors’ group holds final reunion

Sunday, October 26, 2008 5:44 AM EDT
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

NORTH HAVEN — The men and women gathered around a table reminisced, as they do every year, about the event that had brought them together: the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

In past years, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association’s annual conference for the New England and New York district drew dozens of people. This year, however, only about 10 survivors were able to attend Saturday’s event at the Holiday Inn. And as they exchanged stories about “a date which will live in infamy,” the members marked another occasion: the association’s final annual meeting.

With many of the members having died or becoming less mobile, the 8th district group decided to bring the tradition to an end.

“Most of the men are getting on in years and can’t travel,” said Ernest Arroyo, a historian who called himself an honorary member of the association.

In 2006, 4,000 to 6,000 Pearl Harbor survivors were alive nationwide. According to the Pearl Harbor Survivors Project, survivor chapters are closing across the country as members die or begin to be too infirmed.

But on Saturday, the group’s members did not dwell on the finality of the meeting. Instead, they joked and exchanged stories about an event that survivor Jack Stoeber, 91, of Milford, called “a day I’ll never forget.”

“It’s great just to be with some of the fellows that were there,” he said.

Clark J. Simmons, 87, of Brooklyn, N.Y., was stationed on the USS Utah, which sank during the Japanese sneak attack that killed 2,388 service personnel and put the United States into World War II. He said that many the shipmates had been on leave the night before and thought they would have a chance to sleep in Sunday morning.

“We were under attack and they said, ‘Man your battle stations,’” he said. “It was too late — within eight minutes we were history. In eight minutes the Utah was sunk.”

Simmons said the New York chapter of the Survivors Association used to meet twice a year, in addition to memorials on Dec. 7, and hold dinners and dances. At the group’s last meeting, he said, eight survivors attended.

He noted that the organization had allowed many people to reconnect with fellow soldiers or sailors they had not seen since the war.

“At the first meetings they would attend and some of the fellows they haven’t seen since boot camp and some of them were in the same unit,” he said. “The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association brought them together — it was like finding a lost relative.”

Harold Slater, 87, was in the Army and stationed near Pearl Harbor. After the bombing, he was ordered to direct traffic, he said. As he motioned for a military convoy to pass, he ran his hand across his bayonet, cutting three fingers.

“Later on they wanted to give me a Purple Heart and I refused it,” Slater said. “It wasn’t enemy action — it was my own fault!”

Slater said he has been a member of the Survivors Association since the 1950s. The Connecticut chapter was formed in 1958, while the New York chapter followed in 1962.

Daniel S. Fruchter, 90, said that he was scheduled to leave Hawaii on Dec. 8, 1941.

“Needless to say, my plans changed without my permission,” he said.

Fruchter was stationed atSchofield Barracks near Honolulu.

“They dropped four bombs actually on the barracks, and fortunately for me they were all duds,” he said.

Before the release of the movie “Pearl Harbor” in 2001, Fruchter and Simmons met with Ben Affleck, the movie’s star, and NBC anchor Tom Brokaw aboard the USS Intrepid in New York.

Simmons said that, with the group’s annual meetings ending, it will be up to the children and grandchildren of Pearl Harbor survivors to continue the memory of the events.

“It’s come upon we survivors now to sort of reach out to them and get them to carry on,” he said. “We set the foundation to remember Pearl Harbor, which basically is our motto: Remember Pearl Harbor and keep America alert. It means something to us and hopefully it means something to our sons and daughters.”

Slater said he will miss the conferences.

“It’s kind of like losing your best friend,” he said.

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